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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

"Might I have a room of my own..?"

Collage of young Laura Wheeler and early Cheyney buildings
"Welcome to Cheyney" from the at

Upon arriving at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) at Cheyney, PA, Laura Wheeler would have first been greeted by a spacious stone farmhouse or “mansion house,” the former home of wealthy Quaker, George Cheyney, from whom the land had been purchased. This grand building now served as both home to Principal Hugh Browne and his wife as well as the school’s administrative offices. Some feet away, a fairly recently built structure, known as the industrial building or Humphrey Hall, contained a dormitory for boys and their instructors on the top floor, classrooms, shops for iron work and carpentry, a kitchen, and a dining room in which students and teachers had their meals. There was also a barn for the horses and cows, and a springhouse which had been renovated for dairy instruction. The school’s vegetables were farmed and harvested by the students, who also worked the dairy to supply the milk and butter.  

The position at ICY, aka Cheyney Training School was a much appreciated opportunity, a stepping stone to a new life. After the first year, Laura dutifully spent the summer studying teaching methods and would write to Uncle Hugh that she had received “….certificates from my summer courses in music and drawing, showing that I passed my examinations satisfactorily. I am thankful for that and glad that it is over.” 

Her reward was that Hugh Browne was able to convince the Board of Managers to appoint Laura Wheeler to teach at Cheyney, although she did not have a college degree. Laura was then officially one of a staff that included seven teachers, the principal, and his wife as unpaid “Matron”.  

Laura was hired at a salary of about $9.00 a month,  plus room and board (she would have to pay for laundry service). The much needed paycheck would cover her train fare to Philadelphia and her class fees at the Academy, since her parents, with two sons remaining at home, had decided they were unable to support her art education.

Collage students and portrait of Evangeline Rachel Hall by Laura Wheeler Waring,
Students at Cheyney (left) Portrait of Evangeline Rachel Hall by Laura Wheeler Waring, courtesy Cheyney University

The faculty hired under Hugh Browne were to be among the best colored teachers in the country. Foremost among the esteemed teachers was Evangeline Rachel Hall, a 1905 graduate of Radcliffe College. At ICY, Hall excelled as a math teacher, school administrator and respected leader among the faculty and the black residents of the neighboring town of West Chester. Within the close family atmosphere at Cheyney, Evangeline and Laura would become perennial colleagues and lifelong friends, and in a short time, sisters-in-law as Evangeline’s sister, Madeline would marry Laura’s younger brother, Arthur.

ICY constituted its own tiny, segregated society. An atmosphere of genteel collegiality and decorum was practiced by the ICY faculty, who were at all times expected to present to the students as well-mannered, watchful and benevolent role models of the highest order, and to enlighten and encourage them by instruction and personality. ICY was home away from home for both faculty and students, and the aim was that it be as peaceful, orderly and well-maintained a home, if not more so, as that in which they were raised. Contributing to the order was the school’s daily schedule, strictly adhered to by faculty and students alike:

  • 6:10 Rise

  • 6:30 Breakfast

  • 7:00 Morning chores

  • 7:30 Teachers’ breakfast

  • 8:00 Morning study

  • 12:30 Dinner

  • 3:30 Laboratory work (or student teaching with children from the Negro school in nearby West Chester)

  • 4:30 Work and recreation

  • 6:00 Supper

  • 7:00 Evening study

  • 9:20 Recreation

  • 9:50 Retiring bell

  • 10:00 Lights out

After three years at Cheyney Laura felt secure enough to request adjustments to her living arrangements, writing to “Uncle Hugh,” “if it will be convenient, I would like to ask you if I might have a room by myself in the cottage next year. It would please me very much and would be agreeable in many ways.”

Though she would have to wait for that all important room of her own, it would eventually become a reality.

Painting/photo collage of Laura Wheeler Waring's studio/living quarters at Cheyney School for Teachers. Painting by Laura Wheeler Waring.
Laura Wheeler Waring's studio/living quarters at Cheyney Training School.

Laura’s life at ICY brought her in contact with the residents of the neighboring area in various ways. The surrounding large farms and homesteads were chiefly owned by whites, many of them of the Quaker faith. It was not uncommon for the ICY family to witness the sight and sounds of the white gentry engaged in a rousing fox hunt across the nearby hills. Boys and men fished in Cheyney Creek and trapped and hunted in the woods.

Participating in these last activities were members of a small community of African Americans who had established themselves over the last century along Cheyney Road, in a section of the county known as Thornbury Township, just south of the school. They worked as domestic servants and at their own enterprises, as haulers, shoemakers, blacksmiths and barbers. Cheyney’s African Americans worked at places like ICY, the Shelter for Colored Orphans, the Glen Mills Reform School, in the paper mills and at the more dangerous jobs at several stone quarries in the area, including one on Glen Mills Road, only two miles from the school.  The quietude of study at ICY might at any time be disrupted by the jarring, stone-busting blasts from the quarry at Glen Mills.

"Singers" by Laura Wheeler Waring. Image courtesy of Madeline Murphy Rabb.

ICY would slowly evolve into a community center for the black residents of the area. They rallied to the school to watch football and baseball games, and to concerts performed by the Cheyney Singers, which Laura Wheeler conducted. She would also take the students to sing at Thornbury AME Church, and would present joint concerts with the two choirs.  Cheyney students would later recall in the school’s 1939 year book, “There has always been music at Cheyney.” In addition to developing visual art education at the school, Laura Wheeler Waring was largely responsible for establishing the school’s musical program.  She had been brought up to believe that no proper home should be without an appreciation of religious and classical music, and she brought this quality to her new home at Cheyney.

Classes at Cheyney were held Tuesday through Saturday, which usually left only Mondays to attend classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Long walks through the countryside at Cheyney not only constituted a course of study but were part of the school’s official recreation program. It’s likely that the scenic views that Laura regularly encountered in her adopted environment compensated in some way for the little time she had to actually pursue instruction onsite at the Academy. 

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